Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
There was little doubt that Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa’s off the cuff quip that, ‘there is nothing to give, we may only have to take’ (from Sri Lankans) when quizzed by reporters as to what relief the 2022 National Budget promises to the citizenry, would soon return to haunt him.
Public discontent and political racketeering
This was not perhaps the wisest riposte that the Finance Minister should have made on the eve of presenting the Budget against a rising groundswell of popular anger, severe economic stress and wildly out-of-control racketeering by politically ‘protected’ traders. From fluctuating purchase prices of covid tests and vaccines to skyrocketing consumer essentials including cooking gas, garlic, rice and sugar, Government insiders no less allege that massive profits are being skimmed off ‘deals’ by Ministers.
Add to that, we have trade unionists, the Buddhist clergy, the Catholic Church and a motley collection of the Government’s constituent parties challenging a Cabinet decision that they say was made in secrecy, to transfer 40 percent of the state-owned shares of the Kerawalapitiya Yugadanavi power plant to an American company. Now before the courts, the issue is bound to generate substantial public discontent amidst talk of ‘deals’ and more ‘deals.’ We are far too disconcertingly familiar with such accusations.
At another level, as farmers call down ancient curses upon the heads of ruling politicians for depriving them of fertiliser for their fields, protests erupt elsewhere. In Negombo, fisherfolk and the clergy gather in their thousands against a proposed government acquisition of portions of the Muthurajawela wetlands. Demonstrations continue against failures to afford justice to victims of the 2019 Easter Sunday jihadist attacks on churches and hotels while the Government and the Opposition engage in shadow boxing in Parliament.
Public outrage cannot be curbed through arbitrary restrictions
Meanwhile, the combined trade unions are on the march, alleging widespread corruption of the ‘powerful’ while the working classes suffer. This week, the Government hastily gazetted new quarantine regulations requiring the Director General of Health Services to approve the numbers permitted for ‘gatherings, activities, events or meetings.’ This was justified as necessary to contain a potential fourth wave of covid. Conspicuously absent from this list of circumscribed activities were ‘protests.’
Regardless, activists alleged that the thinly veiled underlying intention was to prevent protests. Public health inspectors also cautioned that the restrictions will be more honoured in the breach than in their observance, leading to the snowballing of protests. This is a warning that the Government would do well to take heed of, recalling its ignominious retreat when education trade unionists were arrested ostensibly for violating quarantine laws. Their struggles resulted in a rare win as the Government agreed to accommodate a pay hike for teachers in the budget.
All this teaches a valuable lesson. Legitimate public outrage cannot be met through artificial restrictions. Decades ago, this has been repeatedly stressed by Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court in holding that even emergency law (and by logical extension thereto, ‘quarantine law’) cannot arbitrarily deprive citizens of their civil rights. Recently, magistrates’ courts have drawn upon those very principles to warn overzealous police officers not to overstep their lines of authority.
A State under siege?
But there is a wider truth that all of this speaks to. To all intents and purposes, this is a State under siege, a far cry indeed from the assurances held out by President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to the newly minted Ninth Parliament of Sri Lanka on 20th of August 2020. Then, he promised that he would use his ‘stable government’ and a two-thirds majority in the House to ‘eradicate waste and corruption’ in all Ministries and state institutions. That promise extended to a guarantee that he ‘will not hesitate to enforce the law against those who are involved in fraud and corrupt actions, irrespective of the status of any such perpetrators.’
These assurances were made in line with the National Policy Framework on Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour. Today, the President informs the public at a recently held National Science Festival that,’ if the expectations of the people are not fulfilled through his Government, the voters should change from the norm of re-electing previously elected groups.’ The bitter irony implicit therein is only too evident. So are the many questions that consequently arise. Has the President, in fact, ‘ enforced the law’ against the fraudulent and the corrupt in his Government?
If not, from whom are the unfortunate people supposed to select these ‘other choices’ but from the very corrupt, ineffective and disgraceful lots that make up our political groupings? And for the veritable lack of choices so afforded, should not responsibility lie first and foremost on those who have promised to clean up that stagnant mess but have, for various reasons, failed to do so? That reality is acknowledged by the President himself when he shrugged at that end of that advice to add, ‘I do not know how that could be done.’
Ministerial tomfoolery and patronage politics
On top of this, we have to suffer political tomfoolery at the reading of the Budget. On the floor of the House, the Finance Minister’s colleague, the Trade Minister, seemingly unfazed by allegations of serious corruption and nepotism made against him by the former head of the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) who thereafter resigned in protest, explained with gusto that this was a ‘historic budget’ in that it was presented during the time of unprecedented calamities brought about by the global pandemic.
His sycophantic hosannas were echoed by the Government’s news squads who acclaimed the 2022 budget variously as ‘visionary’ and ‘unparalleled.’ But these tired cliches masked the hard truth of what the Finance Minister had said to the media on ‘taking from the people’ albeit unguardedly perhaps. Furious citizens quoted those very words back at him when television cameras were thrust in their faces. Certainly this budget was a ‘first’ but in other ways than what the Trade Minister so enthusiastically claimed in the best traditions of political servility.
Quite apart from the extraordinary opening of the budget speech in extolling the virtues of his family’s political legacies, the most prominent feature of these budget proposals was the virtual ‘giving away’ of millions of funds to local politicians for what euphemistically has been described as ‘rural development (Gama Samaga Pilisadara) in what many will see as a ploy to dole out to their favourites with an eye to future elections. Realistic relief to the poorest segments of the populace, badly hit both by the pandemic and ruinous policy measures such as the abrupt switch from chemical to organic fertiliser, is absent.
No impact of the Budget on the people
When questioned on this, the Finance Minister could only mumble some unconvincing words. His categorical rejection of any further benefits to a staggeringly overweight public service by saying that this is a burden to the public purse must however be welcomed. Very few would contest the drain on public funds by having armies of public servants who are most distinguished for their monumental inefficacy or for shamelessly pandering to those in power to obtain benefits.
Nonetheless, the Presidential rider as to ‘don’t chase one lot out, elect another lot, then chase that lot out and bring back the same old rogues’ is a telling injunction. It would have had far more force if an actual effort had been made by the Presidency and the Government to nab racketeers in their ranks responsible for the gross misery that the populace is afflicted with.
The failure thereof is unsurprising. So is this Budget which gives little relief to Sri Lanka’s desperate citizenry.